A terrific and provocative piece in the New York Times yesterday:  food columnist Mark Bittman demolished the sacred cow that junk food is cheaper than healthy food, a belief that is often invoked to explain why so many Americans eat it and thus are fat.  First he shows that reasonably economical home-cooking is cheaper than even McDonalds.  Next he demonstrates that home-cooked meals can be as or more calorie dense than fast food, even presuming that is what one is seeking in a world where we consume too many calories.  Third, while he acknowledges that there are “food deserts” in low-income neighbourhoods, he suggests that 93% of low-income dwellers therein have at least access to a vehicle, so could get to a supermarket to buy food.  Finally, he even takes apart the idea that we don’t have time to cook, stating that the average American watches 90 minutes of television a day, regardless of their income, some of which could easily be redirected towards cooking.

Bittman suggests that the real barrier to cooking healthy food at home is that we perceive it as work, and that, by comparison, fast food is “a pleasure and a crutch”.   There is a physical pleasure to fast food, one which scientists and critics have warned is quite literally addictive, but there is also the fact that fast-food companies have created and attached a “carnival” of pleasure to their food by making it ubiquitous, instantaneous, mobile and playful.  In other words, fast-food is perfect expression of our technological age, all wrapped up in a big bow of accessibility and fun.

Bittman argues that “real cultural changes are needed to turn this around”, but that the “smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.”  The tricky bit is how.  Bittman says that we need political change, but the rest lies with us.  We should “cook at every opportunity, to demonstrate to family and neighbors that the real way is the better way. And even the more fun way: kind of like a carnival.”

Those of us who cook do tend to find it fun:  no doubt that’s part of the reason we do it.  But it’s worth asking if there are ways that we can increase the fun, not only for our own pleasure, but to be the kind of models for which Bittman is calling.  It’s not just about competing with fast-food, it’s about celebrating a core part of our existence.  Ironically, given that we consume our food, cooking and eating are modes of engagement that can lie outside of the ruthless production/consumption model that characterizes so much of the rest of our lives.  Cooking and eating are about creativity, connection to the natural world, experimentation, bonding with other people, thanksgiving and pure sensual delight.  And frankly, I’ve never been one to think that it only “counts” if you’re eating with others.  When I lived alone, I was always very happy cooking for myself, investigating new ingredients, trying new things, filling my apartment with good smells and actually enjoying the fact that I was taking care of myself.

So what are the ways that we can reengage with the joy of cooking?  Here are five ideas:

  1. Embrace the sensuality of cooking.  Come on, this is good.  Really look at the deep purple skins of eggplant, the rich coral of salmon, or the pink piping on borlotti beans.  Inhale the scents of turmeric, lime, wild mushrooms or melting chocolate.  Feel the springy resilience of kale, the slipperiness of fresh scallops, the soft flesh of a peach.  You get the picture, but if you need inspiration, watch Like Water for Chocolate or Babette’s Feast.
  2. Screw being a master chef.  Cooking is one of those things that some people invest a lot of time in, not just because they like it, but because it becomes part of their identity.  Notwithstanding Iron Chef or whatever the show is, cooking is not a competitive sport.  It’s life.  Embrace peasant food.  Embrace the possibility of the failure that can come with experimentation (my personal nadir was artichoke soup that cost a fortune, took hours, and was basically unsalvageable despite buckets of wine and cream.  My favourite memory of that though, is my dear friend Lori still insisting it was good.  I love her still for that).  Embrace being really great at a couple of things, and having fun with a whole lot more.
  3. Have rituals.  I know, eventually an anthropologist was going to talk about rituals, but rituals are a way of marking special time, and transforming routine into something more profound.  They’re deeply human.  Rituals of thanksgiving, be they grace, or having each person at the table say something to honour the food, remind us of what our food connects us too.  But even the simple ritual of lighting candles at the start of the meal makes the time special.
  4. Play.  No, this doesn’t mean playing with your food.  This means experimenting with new ingredients or cuisines, making wacky substitutions if so inclined, lovingly following your favourite cookbook authors (I have a thing for both Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater), collecting period cookbooks…whatever works for you.  And it means using the sacred time and space of the table to engage playfully with others.  Laurie David has some great ideas in The Family Dinner and it’s also worth asking your parents and grandparents what traditions they might have had that you can try again.
  5. Mix things up.  There is little in life as fun as establishing rules and then breaking them.  Look at the perennial fun of Mardi Gras or cross-dressing!  Figure out which cooking and table “rules” you need to maintain, and which you might enjoy breaking now and then.  Eat dessert first.  Pick one favourite ingredient and base an entire menu around it (I wouldn’t suggest goose though, at least, it didn’t work out so well for me).  Eat breakfast for dinner.  Have everyone come to the table in their pyjamas, or evening clothes, or in costume.  I do believe that one should always be respectful of one’s food, but beyond that, it’s fun to play self-consciously with the rules that govern all the “should” and “oughts” of our existence.

These are but a few ideas, based on what we know generates fun and pleasure.  Let’s do it.  Let’s reinvent the joy of cooking.  We’ll all be happier, healthier and skinnier as a result.